Suddenly shafted: Metro closing takes some by surprise

By Mythili Rao

Last week, Dish noted that Charlottesville's bastion of fine dining, the nationally acclaimed Métropolitain, had closed for two months' renovation. Faced with declining business, co-owners Tim Burgess and Vincent Derquenne decided to use the typically slow summer months to transform the upscale Water Street restaurant into a more casual eatery simply called "Metro."

But there's more to the scoop. When Burgess and Derquenne decided to shut down Métropolitain for the remainder of the summer, their staff got only two days' notice. Keicy Tolbert, a hostess who lost her job, calls it "one of the most abysmal displays of callousness that I have ever seen."

At the beginning of their shift Friday, June 28, restaurant employees were told that the restaurant would be closing Sunday. Upon hearing that news, one server, Ted Thorsen, promptly walked out.

Tolbert, who works on Saturdays, did not find out until the next night– when she and the remaining two servers were left to tend to 61 hungry customers.

On a normal night, patrons can complete a meal in as little as 45 minutes, says Tolbert. That Saturday, she says, diners waited as much as an hour for each course of their meal. "Everyone was really kind of upset," says Tolbert.

Dean DeMaupin, a former Métropolitain chef, landed at Bizou on the Downtown Mall. Along with Bang on Second Street, which also absorbed some of the workers, Bizou is operated by Burgess and Derquenne.

"The only people who might have been shortchanged were the wait staff," says DeMaupin, "but they were all people who could easily find work around town elsewhere."

Virginia is what the Department of Labor and Industry calls an employ-at-will state. State code allows employers to terminate any employee's position at any time, for any reason– or for no reason.

"It's the way it goes," DeMaupin says. "It's business; it's life."

However, a position at Métropolitain– where the menu lists $13 appetizers and $575 wine– is more than the average summer job. Employees estimate that a good night can bring servers over $300 in tips. Even a slow night can earn a waiter $50-100. Tips at the more casual Bizou and Bang, they say, are less.

By mid-summer, many local jobs are filled by college students, and Tolbert worries that the suddenly unemployed servers will be hard pressed to find comparable work. "I was livid when I found out what they did to the servers," she says.

"For the people who are out of a job, there's no way that couldn't affect them adversely," says Jill Zimorski. Metropolitain's former acting general manager, Zimorski now waits tables at Bang.

"It's a very fun way to make a living," she says of working in a restaurant, "but one of the trade-offs is it might not have the security of a job in an office."

The owners remain unapologetic. "There's no 'perfect' time to close," Burgess said in a July 1 interview.

Earlier this week, Dish found Derquenne in Bang's kitchen. Brandishing an eggbeater, the French chef said he and Burgess tried to absorb as many employees as they could.

He claims that employees were notified as soon as he and his business partner heard back from their builder, whose name he could not remember. According to Derquenne, Métropolitain dishwashers and chefs were given positions at Bizou and Bang, leaving only two full-time and two part-time employees out of work.

Insisting that the layoffs are hardly newsworthy, Derquenne suggested that Dish cover the WorldCom scandal instead. "If you want to find an asshole, look someplace else," he said as he whipped a bowl of Asian horseradish cream sauce into pale pink submission.

Tolbert, a UVA graduate student in English who plans to take a university research position, says the handling of the closing "was really a hit to everybody's dignity and trust."

Customer relations may have suffered as well. Sources tell Dish that this past Saturday, eight exquisitely dressed diners arrived to claim their reserved table at Métropolitain, unaware that the restaurant had closed. Derquenne declines to definitively account for their confusion.

Did Métropolitain inform all reservation-holders of the closing? "What do you think?" asks Derquenne.